Of all the trash Glam bands, the Sweet were the glammest. No question. They had the best makeup, the best idiot clothes, the best bouffant nonsense hair, the best pout to the camera – and the best tunes. (We’re not including Suzi Quatro in any of this, you understand.)
Maybe the best thing about The Sweet was that they looked like the sort of boys you’d have found in a Birmingham pub knocking out old R&B standards, all sweaty and pints of beer, T-shirts and jeans . . . but, of course, they weren’t like that at all.
Formed in 1969 as Wainwright’s Gentlemen (a soul band which included such notables as Ian Gillan and Roger Glover who were later to find huge success with Deep Purple), they turned into psychedelic bubblegum merchants Sweetshop before dropping the psychedelic (and the ‘shop’) bit when it went out of fashion… er, I mean when they found their true musical niche.
The Sweet were the Glam Rock band. Comprising singer Brian Connolly (he of the long blonde feather-cut), guitarist Andy Scott, bassist (and former solicitor’s clerk) Steve Priest and drummer boy Mick Tucker, Sweet signed to RCA and were the first band to be taken under the protective wings of the songwriting team of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman.
Together they pumped out a string of hits: Funny Funny (1971), Alexander Graham Bell (1971), Co-Co (1971), Little Willy (1972), Poppa Joe (1972), Wig Wam Bam (1972), Hellraiser (1973), Blockbuster (1973), Ballroom Blitz (1973) and Teenage Rampage (1974).
How many Glam bands (or any other type of bands, for that matter) would have thought of getting a top hit out of a paean to the man who invented the telephone? Not many, surely.
The Sweet were crass, playful, absurdly glamorous and curiously macho. There they’d stand on Top Of The Pops knocking out one of their nonsense, plasticky hits in the Glammest outfits that you could imagine. High-heeled boots, glitzy and satin and glitter and, of course, the tightest trousers you could think of – Trousers that made their crotches . . . well, split in two. Little Willy? Not bloody likely!
For the first few years, they were tat. The songs were plastic, manufactured tat. Put them next to the likes of Chicory Tip and you’d have been pushed hard to see the difference. And then something happened. They suddenly became overt. In 1972, Mecca banned them from playing concerts in their clubs because of the ‘sexually overt stage act’.
Infamy assured they went on to be one of the genre’s only real supergroups. They sold 50 million records and at their height lived the rock ‘n’ roll life to the full. Notorious consumers of things to make you feel good, they burned. Connolly typified their excess, buying a huge mansion in Surrey, a £250,000 yacht and employing a full-time gardener, maid and chauffeur.
In December 1974, The Sweet had a brainwave – something that’s generally not a good idea for anyone. It’s something that’s definitely never a good idea for a pop group. They decided to split from Chinn and Chapman and write their own songs.
They’d rumbled about doing something like this before. They’d written their own b-side in the past and, in an effort to placate them, Chinn and Chapman had altered their writing style.
Suddenly, their songs rocked. That run of four songs from Blockbuster to Teenage Rampage, that’s a body of work that you’d be proud of. It was like an overnight conversion.
Really, it went from you the viewer being embarrassed when they were on TOTP to sitting there, hoping, praying that they’d be on.
One of their first fruits of that was the crackin’, zingin’ Blockbuster with its sirens and rockin’ guitar and Jean Genie riff.
Blockbuster was THE SONG. Blockbuster should have been adopted as the national anthem. (The idea of The Queen turning to the camera, pouting ‘We just haven’t got a clue what to do’ – it’s too delicious for words.)
Blockbuster was like . . . Every generation has its song. Rock Around The Clock, Anarchy In The UK, Fool’s Gold, Blockbuster. Honest, it was that good!
Really, and I don’t mean any disrespect here, but The Sweet should have died in a plane crash after Blockbuster.
If they’d taken the smart career move, the musical would never have left the West End. Listen, they can make a musical out of Buddy, some geek in glasses, think of what they could have done with The Sweet.
The thing with Blockbuster was that it was the zeitgeist. It was exactly the right song at exactly the right time. Bolan‘s Ride A White Swan might have been more iconoclastic, Bowie‘s Ziggy Stardust might have been more dramatic, Roxy‘s Virginia Plain might have been the best debut single ever (before or since) but Blockbuster . . . It was like you need a pint of milk so you go to a pint of milk shop and buy a pint of milk. We needed Blockbuster and, right on time, there she was.
They upped the ante all right, and Chinn and Chapman rose to the challenge. Next up was Ballroom Blitz, with its comical Joan Crawford opening – Brian inquiring “Are you ready, Steve? . . . Are you ready Mick? . . . Are you ready Andy? . . . Well, let’s goooooo”, and Hellraiser.
How many dance floors rocked to the sound of The Sweet? How many times did you hear that air raid siren that welcomed in Blockbuster and rush to the dance floor? Well, rush as well as you could in five-inch heels.
And then . . . “We’re proper musicians . . . we’re creative artistes . . . wanna do our own stuff”. Yeah, and record it on Dolby. And that, really, was the end of The Sweet. At least it is as far as we’re concerned.
OK, so they scored with Fox On The Run in 1975, but the hits dried up as they sought to ‘gain acceptance as proper musicians’. They went to America and tried to reincarnate as a heavy metal group, but mostly they ended up playing the rock star and taking advantage of all things that life has to offer a young rock star.
Nevertheless, their 1978 album Level Headed produced arguably their strongest studio album, spawning a transatlantic hit with the Ivor Novello Award-winning Love Is Like Oxygen.
Jettisoning the rock bombast of their earlier material in favour of CSN-style harmonies (Dream On), a flirtation with Disco (California Nights, Strong Love) and a shot of post-punk experimentation (Air On A Tape Loop), this was The Sweet searching for a new sound and finding several.
The Sweet started life as a comical bubblegum group doing comical pop songs and ended life as a bunch of old bickering sadsters, but for a brief, glorious period they burned brighter than bright and were the starriest star in the sky. That should be enough for anyone.
Fittingly, when they blew up, they blew up big time and the whole thing ended in bitter acrimony – alcohol, arguments and early death.
Brian Connolly’s drink problems were a major contributor to his health issues and, ultimately, his death from renal failure, liver failure and repeated heart attacks on 9 February 1997. He was just 52.
Connolly had suffered multiple heart attacks in 1981 which led to a nervous system disorder and further affected his voice, and he finally stopped drinking four years later.
An attempted original line-up reunion had to be abandoned in 1988 due to the singer’s condition. In 2002, drummer Mick Tucker succumbed to leukaemia.
Later, Steve Priest said: “We were drinking too much and taking too many drugs – which seemed to be a good idea at the time”. I’m sure it did Steve. But it wasn’t.
Priest formed his own version of Sweet in Los Angeles in 2008, while guitarist Andy Scott led another line-up based in the UK. The two Sweets stayed out of each other’s territories until Steve Priest passed away on 4 June 2020.
Remember them this way; It’s 1973 and The Sweet are on Top Of The Pops performing Blockbuster. The camera closes in on Steve Priest, who’s wearing so much make-up that Boots had to create a new range just for him, he turns and mouths the classic Glam aside – “We just haven’t got a clue what to do”.
It was so camp you could have put it in a field and slept in it. Perfect.